Denver Nuggets: When Good Starts Go Bad
When the calendar flipped over to November, the Denver Nuggets were in great shape. They won their first three of the month, and pushed their overall record to 9-1. Someone wrote an article about their storybook start and laid out how a juggernaut was rounding into shape. That article, as they say, did not age well.
After running their record to 9-1, the Nuggets have proceeded to lose six of their next seven, culminating with the close loss last night to the Millwuakke Bucks, and have gone tumbling down the standings to 10-7. With their sole win over the openly tanking Atlanta Hawks, the Nuggets have found few other reprieves on the schedule. What happened? Let's look on offense.
The offense has been as advertised. Their offensive rating is virtually the same -- 111.1 in the first ten games, 110.9 in the last seven. Moreover, their effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage have actually gone up a hair from 51.5 to 53.6, and from 55.2 to 56.2 respectively. The Nuggets haven't fallen off because of an inability to fill it up; the defense is the culprit.
A season after posting a 109.9 defensive rating, the Nuggets dialed it up on the defensive end out of the gates, with a 101.8 that proved unsustainable over the long term. In the last seven, that number fell to 110.4, and it only looks that good -- which is not that good -- because of their blowout of the Atlanta Hawks. Subtract the Nuggets' 45-point demolition of Trae Young's rebuilding squad and that defensive rating drops to a truly abysmal 114.6. Over the course of the season, that's worse-than-the-Cleveland-Cavaliers bad. That's worst-in-the-NBA bad. No wonder the wheels have temporarily come off.
Denver is trying to fix it, making a change to the starting lineup. They moved Torrey Craig to the bench and replaced him with Juan Hernangomez: an overdue move, but one not made when the team is humming along as they were through 10 games. The numbers showed that Malik Beasley might be a better candidate, but Hernangomez got the first call, and his 20 point-11 rebound debut (albeit in a losing effort to the Pelicans) does suggest the decision-makers made the right call. If it doesn't right the ship, though, more changes may be on the way.
Players like to talk about how long the season is, but significant damage can happen in an instant. Over those same seven games, Portland has gone 5-2, and catapulted past Golden State to the best record in the West. Oklahoma City has gone 5-2 as well -- part of ten victories in their last twelve attempts, erasing the memory of their 0-4 start. Denver hardly wants to spend the duration of the season looking up in the standings at their Northwestern foes.
It doesn't get any easier moving forward, either. Seven of the Nuggets' next nine games are on the road, and if they want to stay in playoff position, they'll need to perform like the Nuggets of the first ten games, not the last seven.